This week, owners Orna and Ella announced that they are closing their cafe in March. Named after the owners, the Orna and Ella cafe was featured Etan Fox’s hit Israeli gay film The Bubble. Writer Liel Leibovitz reflects the cafe’s storied legacy.
Opening its doors for business in 1992, Orna and Ella established its complicated relationship with space and time right from the start. The two women who gave it its name, Orna Agmon and Ella Schein, had seven tables and many ideas.
The restaurant’s first years dovetailed with the wild abandon that followed the Oslo Accord, a brief and shining period when most of us walking around town believed that all animosity had ended and that prosperity and peace would be the order of the next hundred years. But while other culinary and cultural establishments took this opportunity to do their best and resemble London or Berlin, Orna and Ella wanted their place to feel like Tel Aviv, or, more accurately, like the Platonic ideal of the White City on the Mediterranean. Instead of Asian fusion or Italian chic, they served Israeli goodness.
When the peace process faltered and the Palestinians launched the Second Intifada and terror returned to Tel Aviv’s streets and the mood grew more somber, Orna and Ella grew ever more essential. Theirs was now the town’s preferred sanctuary, not a cheap escape into transient thrills of the flesh but an oasis that reminded you that, at its core, life in this city was good, and that if you focused on your tea and your Pavlova peace eventually will come, if not from without then from within. In 2006, when a hit Israeli film sought to capture this sense of hopefulness by telling a story of a love affair between two men, one Israel and one Palestinian, it used the café as its backdrop. It was aptly named The Bubble.
And, remarkably, the bubble never burst. The city grew thicker and richer. Its café culture, revolving around idle mornings of inspired conversation, was decimated by a generation glued to its smartphones and uninterested in communion. Big business meant less time for leisurely meals. Nevertheless, Orna and Ella persisted.
It’s just as well: This week, Orna and Ella announced that they are closing the café in March. The building they have occupied for 26 years will soon undergo renovation, and they couldn’t imagine their haven desecrated by the dust and the noise. Besides, they thought it only fitting that their institution should enjoy a death, so rare in Israel, not by sudden violence or slow and lamentable deterioration but softly, peacefully, a sad and sweet goodbye.